Vereneke: Take a Bite of History

Is it possible to "take a bite of history"? That's what we like to think we're doing when we serve Vereneke and Ham Gravy. This Low German dish enjoys a long history with our Mennonite ancestors. Pasta dough pockets filled with a dry cottage cheese mixture are boiled and fried, then topped with a rich ham gravy. They are somewhat similar to pierogi and may have a common origin.  

This is not fast food. Making it is a labor of love with an emphasis on the word "labor".  The steps are not difficult or overly complicated, but there are a lot of them and there is a definite investment of time.  It seems to work best as a group activity. Although I have made vereneke many times, I have never made it by myself. Perhaps that is part of its appeal. Mixed with the delicious aromas are memories of working beside my mother, my sister and the dear ladies at Central Christian School. We try to make it once a year when the extended family gathers at Christmastime. And the taste? Well, we think it tastes a little bit like history.

There are three parts to making vereneke--the dough, the filling and the gravy.  This year my sister, my sister-in-law and I spent a few hours in the kitchen one morning and prepared over 70 vereneke. We made the recipe shown below twice. That was enough to serve 18 that evening with some leftovers to enjoy later. Credit has to go to my sister, Nancy Belknap, who is the leader of the pack and the maker of the recipe. We worked in her beautiful kitchen. My job, and my sister-in-law's was in the construction of the vereneke.

Vereneke and Ham Gravy
For a printable recipe, click here.
For the dough

Mix together:
2 whole eggs
4 egg whites
1 cup evaporated milk
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
7 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
Mix together well and knead briefly until it forms a soft dough.

For the filling:
Locally, dry curd cottage cheese is available at Buhler's Hometown Foods.
2 pounds dry cottage cheese (dry is important)
4 egg yolks
salt and pepper to taste

Mix well.

The gravy is prepared just before serving.

Take approximately 1/6 of the dough and roll out thinly, 1/8 inch or less. You want it thin, but not so thin that the filling breaks through. We are fortunate to use a pasta machine for this and it works great. Long, narrow pieces of dough are perfect for making the half circle pockets. A rolling pin is what I'm sure our ancestors used and it would work well, too. 

Using a cookie scoop or spoon place about 2 tablespoons of filling on the dough. We try to assemble several at once as shown in the photo. The dough is pulled over the filling, then each venerenke is cut into a semi-circle using a tuna can. Who knows what our ancestors used before the advent of the tuna can! But that is what we've always used. Make sure the seams are sealed. If necessary use your fingers to crimp around the edges. With a toothpick poke a few holes in the vereneke.

The vereneke can be refrigerated until needed. Often we work ahead and freeze the vereneke. 

The bright sun shown on the kitchen island where we worked making the verenenke look very pale.

Cooking the vereneke and making the gravy should be done simultaneously, another reason for plenty of cooks. I'll give directions for cooking the vereneke first.

Into a pot of boiling water, carefully place several vereneke. If they are frozen, it is not necessary to thaw. Don't crowd the pot and allow to boil for several minutes until the vereneke rise to the top.  Using a slotted spoon, remove carefully and allow to drain. Then, fry in butter until golden brown.
Even college students on Christmas break get recruited to help cook vereneke.

For Ham Gravy
5 cups cubed ham
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup flour
1 quart half and half
1 cup sour cream
2-3 cups milk
(Sometimes buttermilk is used as well.)

In a large frying pan melt butter. Add ham and fry slightly. Add flour and mix well to make a roux. Slowly add half and half, sour cream and milk and mix well. Heat until gravy thickens.

Serve vereneke and ham gravy separately.

How many vereneke can you eat? There was plenty for everyone to have as much as they wanted.
Recipe adapted from the Central Christian Cookbook, possibly published in the 1970's, contributed by Helen Adrian (mother of Lowell and Marlin).

Sources of Vereneke Meals (should you prefer not to make your own):

Kansas Mennonite Relief Sale
Held each year in April 
Kansas State Fair Grounds
Hutchinson, KS 
They serve a "Feeding the Multitudes" meal which includes vereneke and many other Low German dishes.